Following their unusually warm welcome they were offered individual rooms in Gen’yumaru’s underground complex, with food and amenities to make them comfortable.
This was what it felt like to be courted.
Still, it would have been irresponsible to disable his byakugan in the depths of a potentially hostile village, so rather than risk it Naruto merely tried to focus very hard on anything other than the baths, where Hinata was currently taking a moment to relax. Very nakedly.
Shinobi had to be well accustomed to such crude biological matters, of course, and Naruto had seen a lot of flesh since Hinata had given him her eye, but it was pretty hard to intentionally not think of a particular thing, and a stray thought was all it took to violate what little privacy anyone could ever have around somebody with the byakugan.
He focused on Sasuke instead, who had gone off to get his seal finalized with Gen’yumaru in another room. The process would apparently take a while, but Naruto intended to wait until Sasuke’s upgrade was finished before he broached the subject of getting his own. The more that could be extracted from Sound before any negotiations even began, the better a position they’d be in.
He could see Sasuke waiting in a small room with a long surgical table and shelves of glass jars holding liquids of various kinds, and a few of pieces of medical equipment of ancient make. Sound village seemed impressively well stocked for their size—the hospital in Leaf was comparable, but that was to serve a ninja population maybe ten times as large.
Gen’yumaru returned through a door, and somehow coated Sasuke in his chakra, appearing to hold him still with it as he circled around, probing and squeezing. It was kind of creepy, seeing him close his eyes as he gently felt up Sasuke’s chest. Sasuke was craning to follow him with his eyes, clearly more than a little unsettled, himself, but apparently unable to move a muscle. It was a strange procedure.
Gen’yumaru opened his mouth and tipped his head back. His arms fell slack at his sides, and a second head began to slowly push its way out of his throat.
That didn’t seem right…
Snakes spilled out from his mouth onto the floor, slick with mucus, and one of the two chakra signatures Hinata had originally identified in Gen’yumaru faded to dark, as if suddenly dead.
That definitely didn’t seem right.
Naruto leaped to his feet and raced for the hallway, banging his fist on the door to the baths as he passed. “Hinata, I think something’s wrong! Come quick!”
He saw her byakugan come alive as he raced up the stairs. She followed not far behind him, hastily pulling some shorts and a jacket on, grabbing her goggles on the way out. Naruto summoned a pack of shadow clones as he ran, but only a few—he was confined by the lack of space underground.
By the time they reached Sasuke the creature had emerged entirely. Gen’yumaru’s skin and bones lay shucked off in a heap on the floor and of a thousand lesser snakes some great meta-serpent had woven itself together, with a pointed chin and the hair of a man, massive enough almost to fill the room with its bulk. It weaved its head through the air, turning to face them as Naruto came barging through the door.
His clones froze mid-step, falling forward across the floor with their momentum, knocking into each other.
Hinata too froze still in the doorway—he could see forein chakra plugging up her every pore, and all of his own, holding the whole group of them perfectly still.
Not one of his clones had actually thought to stay back—not one had even considered it, in his haste to “help”, and now he and Hinata were trapped as badly as Sasuke.
The snake hissed with a thousand separate mouths.
“Ooh, looksss like you caught me… changing. Sss ss ss…”
Stupid. He’d been so stupid to rush in, without any kind of plan.
Little vipers came slithering free from the greater snake’s body to nip at Naruto’s shadow clones, dispelling them one by one. The last body left failed to burst when bitten, making clear his vulnerability. Sasuke and Hinata were proven defenseless in the same way.
“I’m surprised you sssaw through it… hmm. I wonder what gave me away?”
A snake made its way up Hinata’s neck and grabbed the strap of her goggles in its mouth. It moved like an extended finger, dexterously working them free.
They clattered against the floor, and the great snake recoiled in surprise.
“Byakugan!” it hissed. “…but only one?”
He lowered his head to examine at the bandages covering one of Naruto’s own eyes. A snake extended from his neck to pull them away.
“Two! Two byakugan!” he hissed. “Kabuto! …Come! Kabuto!”
He beat one of his snakes against a door like a fist. Naruto saw Kabuto get up from his work in the other room to answer the summons—clearly he was not the one in charge in Sound.
“Look!” the snake hissed. “Two byakugan eyesss have come in with young Sssasuke…”
Kabuto looked them over. “Interesting luck,” he said. “Shall I prepare another bed for a transplant, or should we wait until you’ve adjusted to the new body?”
“Sssilly child, always reliant on obsolete plansss… We shall put the byakugan in Sasuke firssst. Weakens him, not I, and makes my transssition all the smoother…”
Kabuto nodded. “I’ll fetch another bed, then.”
He paused in the doorway. “The byakugan… it doesn’t differ between users, correct?”
“No, it does not,” hissed the snake. “All the sssame, I shall have it from the female; she looks of Hyuuga blood.”
He nodded again, but still hesitated.
“Sss ss ss… yesss, I know what you are thinking. You may have the ssspare for yourself once I am back in health, if you’ve been a good boy,” the snake said. “You may keep the male comatose, until then.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Whatever technique had taken hold of them was too powerful to physically resist. Naruto saw the foreign chakra pressing in on him from all sides, plugging every pore. He’d tried focusing the chakra on his hand, to shape the whirlpool technique, but nothing made it out.
He mentally berated himself for not having left any clones outside Sound village—he hadn’t wanted to risk them being caught, and impacting the negotiations, but there was no reason he couldn’t have left one somewhere further back. That should have been the first thing he did when he started fleeing for his life—he should have sent multiple bodies out all over the continent. Even just a few would have made it more or less impossible to ever recapture him. Hinata and Sasuke wouldn’t have been able to do the same for long, but if he’d had a body somewhere unaffected he might have at least been able to do something right now. He’d been so reckless. Again.
The great snake left Hinata and him standing there while it lifted Sasuke in its coils, gently laying him down on the table as Kabuto wheeled another bench in from the adjacent room. They were going to take Hinata’s eye out, and then his own, eventually, and kill them both when they were done. It sounded like the snake meant to use Sasuke’s body in whatever way it had used Gen’yumaru’s—something about a transition. They would all die if they didn’t escape soon, but that was impossible if he couldn’t even move.
No—that wasn’t necessarily true. He hadn’t confirmed that literally nothing would work, yet, even if the snake did seem confident. Naruto ran through a mental list of the techniques he had available. Whirlpool: no, already tried. Shadow clone: no—he couldn’t make the hand-seals, which also meant no transformation, no raging wave, no barrier… his byakugan was still active, at least. And he could move his eyes, which theoretically could be used to communicate by blinking, somehow—probably not very easily, but all academy graduates were fluent in Morse. There was nothing he could reach on his person without the use of his hands, nothing he could really do while unable to move—he couldn’t even bluff his way out without the use of his tongue. The paralysis seemed to cut off every possible route to even begin a counterattack, and Sasuke and Hinata didn’t seem to be having any more success than he was in overcoming it.
His brain was still working, though—he had to think. How could he break the hold of the technique? There might be a way; maybe overpowering it in a small area would puncture a hole that made the rest of the technique weaker.
He tried focusing a sharp drill-point at his fingertips, where it was most familiar, but nothing seemed strong enough to come out. Sasuke might have had a better chance at it, or Hinata, but if they were trying he could see no visible result.
What about other angles, then? He had a lot of chakra—if he could use that as leverage, somehow—maybe if he pushed chakra from everywhere at once.
It didn’t work, or maybe it just wasn’t enough. It reminded him of Rock Lee in the exams, when he’d opened the chakra gates to a similar purpose. It took years of careful training to gradually work yourself up to a point where you could avoid killing yourself in the attempt, though, and Naruto had no natural talent for chakra control. Maybe it would be worth a try as a last resort, despite the overwhelming risk of death, but he hadn’t exhausted his creativity yet.
He’d tried experimenting a while back to see if he had inherited the Fourth Hokage’s famous teleportation technique, being by blood his son, but everything at the time had suggested he simply hadn’t. Bloodlines were strange things—it was difficult to predict whether a child would inherit from both parents, or from one, or from neither; some bloodlines seemed to be passed down consistently in a certain way, others in less consistent ways, and there were even cases where combining two families’ bloodlines would consistently produce a third sort—it seemed his father’s technique had just come and gone in a single generation, like so many others. Naruto hadn’t inherited anything. Or, nothing but the tailed beast, anyway.
There was an idea. The tailed beast was a kind of power source, potentially, though he had no idea how to make use of the beast’s strength. A rampaging jinchuuriki could raze entire countries—if there was some way to get at it safely… he knew it wasn’t supposed to be possible, that the mind of the host was gone forever, they said, but perhaps that was just a lie to assuage their souls, when facing the necessity of killing a comrade? The tailed beasts were known to speak sometimes with humans, gloating as they destroyed—so if the spirit had an intelligence of its own, why shouldn’t a deal be struck? He was the beast’s personal gatekeeper, in a sense, so it was not unreasonable to expect that he might have something the creature wanted. Even his own mere survival might be valued if it was true that the spirits of the beasts took a few years before they could reappear in a new host—he’d always assumed that was just an effect of the delay in discovery, but if it was true then perhaps it was something they could both cooperate to avoid? He might be the first to ever manage it. Cooperation with a beast.
He had no idea of how to communicate with it, even in theory, but that was no reason not to try whatever came to mind. He visualized the beast in his thoughts, picturing it as it was artistically depicted: a great, orange fox spirit, with slit eyes and nine tails. He tried to direct his thoughts at the creature: Wake up, tailed beast! Wake up and come out!
He felt the connection to his byakugan being disrupted by some unexpected pulse from his insides, but he didn’t need the eye to see what was happening—the blood-red chakra bubbling from his flesh like water boiling over. He looked down at his hands—he was free to move them, now.
The power came with immediate comprehension of what had just happened.
This was why nobody could control the tailed beasts.
This was why the beasts could never be reined in, even by the most disciplined hosts. Naruto had woken it up, and now he was the beast, and he didn’t want to be controlled.
He grinned at the irony—mere seconds ago he’d been driven into a corner by the fear of seeing his friends killed, and now he was about to be the one to kill them. Then again—the idea of “him” was interesting, actually. It distracted him, briefly—he vaguely remembered having read something about values being a part of one’s identity… so he wasn’t actually sure whether it was more correct to think of himself now as being distinct from the old Naruto or not. He certainly remembered everything about being the old Naruto, and he still felt like the old Naruto, at least, but he also wanted to pull Sasuke apart and eat him alive, which the abstract idea of the old Naruto would have strongly disapproved of…
It was a good thing he’d been dumb enough to let the beast free.
He could see he’d caught the snake’s attention. It tried to bind him, but his hands were fast and strong, like the claws of an animal—he tore through its body as if it were made of water.
The little snakes slithered frantically to reconnect themselves, which would have probably been terrifying under normal circumstances, but it seemed like Naruto couldn’t even feel fear anymore. It was so weird… He tried reflexively to perform the Raging Wave technique, but inside his mouth the chakra condensed far beyond what should have been possible, forming a dense ball of pure blackness.
He discharged it like a beam, carving a gouge in the floor and disintegrating the snake’s body to ash as it passed over him.
It screamed from the head as it died, releasing whatever paralysis technique held Sasuke and Hinata.
Killing him hadn’t even been difficult.
The two of them seemed unsure whether to help him fight or to stand back. Naruto let up on the remains of the snake and turned to face them.
“Hey, guys,” he said, “I’m actually the nine-tailed beast, now—or, well, technically I might be more like half-beast and half-Naruto in a weird philosophical sort of way… Anyway, I think I’m pretty much ready to wipe out the whole ninja population, so, you could run, if you wanted. I mean, I’ll chase you down anyway, but I’m just saying, like, if you wanted to, it would be, uh… mutually beneficial. Because I’m really malevolent, now.”
They were either too scared or too stunned to move, as he returned to the task of methodically destroying the remaining little slithering pieces of the snake creature.
He was actually a little embarrassed about how much fun it was, just enjoying his newfound power against something that had recently seemed so strong. He felt pretty good about himself. This was not a kind of power available to mere ninja—a class of people he seemed to suddenly dislike a whole lot. But he had wanted power, hadn’t he? Funny how easily he’d been able to get it once he had actually tried, though he had little interest in trying to do anything so complicated with it, now.
It didn’t seem like much could stop him, but he knew his odds couldn’t be that good; all the other beasts had eventually been beaten and contained in new hosts. Maybe with a little self-restraint he could be more methodical about it—avoid getting himself surrounded, and so on. Improve his odds of actually succeeding where the other beasts had failed. Caution was a habit.
The snake’s subordinate Kabuto had fled after seeing his master’s destruction, but he’d gone in the direction Naruto remembered as leading deeper into the complex, rather than toward the surface. There were prison cells down there, too, so he would have to remember to go down and peel him out later. He hadn’t seen anyone else down there before, so the other prisoners must have been traded away or executed since he had visited Sound last. It was exciting—there were so many countries to visit.
He turned to Hinata and Sasuke, both terrified, cowering against the wall behind him. Sasuke tried to activate the seal on his forehead, but it didn’t seem to work. Maybe Gen’yumaru had done something, or the snake guy, who was dead now, so—it would stop? Or… yes, he had to remember not to forget the prison cells, too, didn’t he? No, that was unrelated… Sasuke had got the seal from the snake guy, who was probably never the real Gen’yumaru, and the snake guy and Gen’yumaru were both dead, so… something. So the seal broke? He’d lost track of what he’d been thinking.
Anyway, he could eat his friends now. So that was good.
“Uh, okay guys, so, I’m about to kill you both now, I guess?” he said. “I’m still kind of new at this, obviously, but—well… I was going to say I would try to be gentle, but now that I think about it I actually don’t really want to, which is pretty horrible. This must be a really weird situation for you two, but, uh… I’m sorry? I mean, I’m not, haha, but you know what I mean, right?”
Hinata had tears in her eyes. “…I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she pleaded, “I love you.”
Naruto tilted his head. Today was turning out so weirdly. What she had probably meant to say was that she loved the old Naruto, who didn’t want to kill her. She’d been keeping that a secret, apparently? Bad timing to reveal it, though; now she’d be extra delicious. Or, alternatively, she was actually talking to Sasuke—actually, that made a lot more sense, since she was apologizing.
“Were you saying ‘sorry I love you’ to me, or to Sasuke?” he asked, curious.
She sobbed into her hands for answering. “To you…”
“Hey!” Sasuke said, swallowing. “Can you hear me in there, Naruto? Resist it!”
“Oh, yeah, I’m here, kind of,” Naruto said. “Like I said though, it’s a little complicated to say whether I ‘am’ Naruto or not… actually there’s an interesting philosopher who writes about exactly this kind of thing—I’d wanted to show you his book, at some point, but I guess it’s too late now.”
“It’s not too late…”
“No, I definitely am planning to eat you,” Naruto said. “Theoretically I guess I could die first, if my luck was really terrible, but I’m not really ‘Naruto’ in the sense that probably matters most to you, even though I still kind of am. I don’t know—it’s been a long time since I read that book. I think it’s supposed to depend on how you define identity, or something? Like whether or not I’m Naruto depends on what exactly a ‘Naruto’ is, and then we’d be mostly arguing over how our intuitions define that vague sort of thing, I guess? I really don’t really know, but yeah, uh… what was I saying before all that?”
Sasuke looked at Hinata. “…Her. She loves you, Naruto.”
“Oh right! Yeah,” Naruto said. “Yeah, wow, my thoughts are really just all over the place, right now. Must be all these changes going on… It feels like—like, mentally, I’m less agile, or something? I don’t know. Might just be all the excitement, but it’s like I keep losing track of what I was thinking of, when I move between too many parts of an idea—like I should be able to think about abstract stuff but then I forget the point. It’s kind of disconcerting, actually… Hey, ask me a math question real quick?”
“Ask me a math question. Like, thirty one multiplied by nine, or whatever. I just want to see if my brain messes it up.”
“…You know you’re not like this, right?” Sasuke said. “You don’t want to kill us.”
Naruto sighed. He hadn’t done a very good job of explaining it.
“Look, I know—like, okay, I know it must seem strange, but trust me, I really do want to kill you, now. You are correct in thinking that the old Naruto would not want to kill you, and wouldn’t want me to kill you or wouldn’t want to want to kill you, or anything like that, but whatever was true in the past I do want to and I don’t want to not want to, right? I’m not struggling against the urge; I just want something different now because I accidentally let the nine-tailed beast out. If the old version of me was here, he would definitely agree with you that it was a very stupid thing to have done, but from my current perspective it was great, because now I get to do things that I currently want to do… Does that make any sense?”
“…No. Explain it again,” Sasuke said. “More slowly.”
Naruto groaned in frustration. “Now you’re just stalling. Can you just pick two numbers real quick? I just want to see if I can multiply them in my head. And you should do it too, so I can check my answer.”
“Are you going to kill us afterwards?”
“Um, yes?” Naruto said. “Don’t be like that, man. Don’t just refuse to cooperate out of spite. I don’t want to have to go trap some scared genin in the corner of their destroyed house and then shout at them to do multiplication problems. That’s too weird.”
Sasuke didn’t smile.
“Okay, how about you, Hinata,” Naruto said.
Sasuke answered, finally. “Seventeen times… forty-eight.”
“Uh, gosh, okay. Let’s see…” Naruto said. “That would be the same as fifty times twenty, minus… two of one thing and three of another, no hang on… seventeen, times forty-eight. That’s ten times forty-eight is four-eighty, plus seven times forty-eight. Seven times forty-eight is ten times forty-eight minus three times forty-eight, that’s four eighty minus three times fifty-minus-two, which is one-forty-four, so it was four-eighty plus four-eighty minus one-forty-four, that’s… nine-sixty minus one forty four which is… eight sixteen! Eight hundred and sixteen?”
“…No,” Sasuke said. “Incorrect.”
“What!” Naruto exclaimed. “Dang it! Are you sure? What were the original numbers again? Forty-eight times—”
“The chakra must be affecting your brain,” Sasuke said. “Usually you’re better with numbers, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, probably something stupid like that,” Naruto said.
“Try reducing the flow of chakra,” Sasuke said, “or, see if you can just cut off the flow to your head. We’ll test it. You can try another math problem.”
It was tough to resist jumping him immediately. Curiosity warred with the hunger inside him, but what was the point of power like this if he couldn’t afford to indulge a little?
Naruto closed his eyes and focused on the flow of chakra inside him, visualizing it raging around like angry waves. Sasuke was just trying to stall, of course, but the Sasuke he’d known back in the academy would never have even thought to tempt him with interesting experiments. They’d come a long way since then. It made the thought of devouring him soon even more exciting. Gosh he was hungry.
Trying to keep his internal chakra from reaching his head would have once seemed impossible, given the insane quantities apparently involved, but he was hesitant to think his control could truly be insufficient after what he’d employed against the snake guy. Still, it came as a surprise when he felt the flow of chakra respond immediately to his will and begin to recede down his neck. Encouraged, he concentrated harder, curious to see whether he could regulate the chakra visibly overflowing from his skin.
“Hey, it’s working!” he said, “This is easy!”
Their faces reminded him that he still hadn’t gotten around to killing them—the prospect of having to do so momentarily horrified him, until he recognized that the fact that he was horrified suggested that he didn’t want to kill them, anymore.
Suppressing the tailed beast’s chakra from his brain had freed his mind from its control. He wasn’t going to kill them.
He brought his hands to his mouth in horror at the narrow escape they had made. “Holy fuck, I was just about to kill you guys.”
He collapsed to his knees. “Holy fuck!”
“…And you aren’t, now?” Sasuke asked, cautiously.
“No! I—Oh fuck that was close…” Naruto said. “I don’t even—I’m so sorry. Guys… holy shit… I’m so sorry.”
Hinata slid her back down the wall, head in her hands.
“Careful,” Sasuke said, “we don’t know if it’s really him, yet.”
“I’m such—” Naruto said. “I’m so sorry, guys. I’m so stupid. I thought I could bargain with the tailed beast—I thought we were going to die, I was looking for some way to—and I killed that guy, holy shit. Wait—are we even safe here, right now?”
Naruto reactivated his byakugan, his hands shaking. He saw the village aboveground, undisturbed. Kabuto was barricaded in a cell downstairs.
“Keep talking,” Sasuke said.
“Right, uh… yeah, I tried to get the beast to talk to me,” Naruto said. “I didn’t know it would just take over my whole mind. Like—it was still me in there, but—suddenly I just wanted to kill every last shinobi in the world, and I couldn’t wait to do it. Fuck. And you just—you tricked me into changing back—I didn’t even know what I was doing with the chakra, I didn’t know it would do that, but if I ever let that thing out again it would definitely not fall for that again, because I would remember how it works. Holy shit—we can never use that to win a fight, ever again. Never ever. Not even if I’m about to die—not unless I get amnesia first or something—but, no, not even then. Fucking… Wow… Fuck.”
“How can we know you’re not still him?” Sasuke said.
“Uhh, shit… I don’t know. You can wait and see that I don’t kill you, I guess? I’m really, really sorry, guys.”
“…Might be a trick,” Sasuke said. “You said you were cruel.”
“It’s him…” Hinata said. “He didn’t lie, even when he was… like that. He was going to kill us, but he was—he was still nice…”
Naruto recalled what she’d said to him before, her tearful confession. “Oh, shit, the love thing! Wow, I didn’t even think that it might have just been another trick to get me to calm down. Wow, you guys both did amazing, holy shit. I don’t think anyone’s ever managed to talk a jinchuuriki down before.”
Her eyes went wide.
“Don’t worry, I’d never have believed you if my brain was working right,” he said. “I didn’t mean to impugn your honor or anything—it was a great act though—really quick thinking. You too Sasuke.”
“…So what happens now?” Sasuke asked. “Assuming you really are back to normal, and you’re not about to change back again. You just killed the leader of Sound.”
“Well, uh, I—I guess we’re back to where we were before?” he said. “I’d understand if you two don’t want to travel with me anymore, if I seem like too much of a risk, but nothing else seems different; we still need to find a village to settle in. Sound country will probably fragment unless that guy Kabuto can hold it together. Is your third-eye seal not working now, by the way? I noticed…”
Sasuke brushed his forehead with a knuckle, but nothing happened. “Not sure.”
“I don’t think there ever was a second level,” Naruto said. “It was doing something for you, though, for a while. I might still be able to intimidate Kabuto, actually, since he saw me kill the big snake. Maybe we should ask him to fix it before we escape.”
“Hinata, you and I should send some shadow clones outside,” Sasuke said.
“Yeah. I will too,” Naruto said, summoning a few clones of his own. “I’m so sorry—I don’t even know what to say.”
“We can talk more once we know we’re secure,” Sasuke said. “I’m sending one of my clones away from Sound without you. Hinata, I think you should do the same.”
Naruto nodded. “Yes. Yeah, that’s smart. Go in multiple directions so I couldn’t catch you again, even if I wanted to.”
They should have left cloned copies of all three of them behind in the forest before they’d even entered Sound. He’d been making mistakes long before he let the tailed beast have free rein in his mind.
“Sorry, again. Really sorry.”
Hinata flinched when he looked at her.
Once the shadow clones were out of the village, offering a kind of security, the three of them tentatively made their way down the stairs to the prison cells at the lowest end of the compound, where Kabuto had barricaded himself in. Naruto knew that apologizing repeatedly wasn’t enough to make a thing like that go away, but he didn’t know what else to do. He’d almost killed them.
They paused for a second outside Kabuto’s cell, taking up a confident pose that felt completely inappropriate after everything that had just happened.
Naruto broke into the cell with his whirlpool drill, with Sasuke and Hinata standing behind as if he was their leader. They had only lucked into defeating the snake guy—their bluffs would be useless if Kabuto too had that seemingly-unbeatable paralysis technique.
Kabuto was standing in the far corner of the cell with his hands raised in surrender.
“I have no loyalties to Orochimaru,” he said. “I won’t contest your claim to the village, but I have knowledge of its resources which I could convey before you kill me.”
Naruto looked over at his teammates. Orochimaru was the name of the third member of the Sannin—he was supposed to have had an affinity for snakes, before he’d vanished.
He’d turned one of the Sannin to ash.
“Okay…” Naruto said, trying to put aside his uncertainty. “Let’s hear it.”
“What would you like me to show you first?” Kabuto asked. “We have a large database of political intelligence—or perhaps the shinobi we employ can be of some use to you? The jounin were already prepared for Uchiha Sasuke’s physical body to take over as leader, so it would not be difficult at all for you to take control, with my help. There’s a lot of money in the treasury, the armory is well-stocked, and our secret ninjutsu library is the most comprehensive of any ninja village, including Leaf’s. I’d be more than happy to give you everything you want.”